Florida Governor Removes Prosecutor Opposed to Death Penalty From 21 Murder Cases
By Gray Rohrer, Rene Stutzman and Gal Tziperman Lotan
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday took away 21 more first-degree murder cases from Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala because she refuses to seek the death penalty.
All of them will be handled by State Attorney Brad King, who serves Lake, Marion and three other counties.
The move comes three weeks after Scott removed Ayala from the case of accused cop killer Markeith Loyd, following a dramatic public announcement.
On March 16 Ayala had stepped to a podium in front of the Orange County Courthouse and said she would not seek the death penalty against Loyd or anyone else.
Scott was outraged.
A few hours later, he phoned her, asking her to step back from that case, but she refused. Later that day, he signed an executive order, naming King special prosecutor.
That decision made Ayala a darling of death penalty opponents but set off both pro- and anti-Ayala demonstrations in Orlando and Tallahassee.
Monday's action by the governor _ 21 separate orders _ was an extension of his earlier decision.
Six of the cases involve murder defendants who have not yet come to trial. The others have already been sentenced to death and have cases on appeal.
In a prepared statement, Scott said he made Monday's decision, "in the interest of justice."
"Each of these cases I am reassigning represents a horrific loss of life. The families who tragically lost someone deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision," he said.
Ayala was in Tallahassee on Monday, meeting with legislators _ not the governor _ according to her spokeswoman, Eryka Washington.
"Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system," Washington said in a prepared statement.
Ayala was in court last week with a Tampa lawyer she had hired to challenge the governor's decision to remove her from the Loyd case.
King and his top assistant, Ric Ridgway, were in Orlando on Monday morning for a hearing in the Loyd case. Ridgway said they found out about the new cases shortly after noon.
"You didn't have to be a psychic to see that this was a possibility," he said. "It was kind of obvious that something like this might happen."
His office has not determined yet how to handle the new workload. It has five attorneys qualified to handle death penalty cases, he said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has offered to loan some of her lawyers, he said.
Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy condemned Scott's decision.
"I think he's overstepping his authority,." he said. "She's been independently elected. ... He's taking away the authority that she was given by the people."
Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw, a member of the Legislature's black caucus, also criticized Scott's decision, writing in a statement: "The governor is attempting to set a dangerous precedent that would destroy the idea of independence for state attorneys throughout Florida who must now fear political retribution ... if they make a decision he disagrees with."
Six of the newly reassigned cases involve defendants who are awaiting trial. They including Larry Perry, accused of beating his infant son to death in St. Cloud; and Juan Rosario, charged with beating his 83-year-old neighbor to death then setting her house on fire.
When Ayala's predecessor, Jeff Ashton, was in office, prosecutors had announced plans to pursue the death penalty in all six.
Monday's other reassignments involve killers who have already been convicted. Eight from that group are likely to win appeals because jurors did not vote unanimously for the death penalty.
They included death row inmate John Huggins, convicted of murdering Carla Larson, an engineer who disappeared from a Publix near Walt Disney World in 1997, and was strangled; Jermaine "Bugsy" Lebron, convicted of murdering a 22-year-old Belle Isle man in Osceola County in 1995 so he could steal the man's red pickup; and David Sylvester Frances, accused of killing a woman and her teenage niece.
Notably absent from the list of 21 were the two defendants most recently sent to death row from Orange County.
They are Bessman Okafor, convicted of killing Alex Zaldivar, a 19-year-old who was set to testify against him in a home invasion trial; and Dane Abdool, who was convicted of burning his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend to death in 2006.
Loyd, 41, is accused of murdering Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton in a Wal-Mart parking lot Jan. 9 as she tried to chase him down and arrest him on a murder warrant.
That warrant was for the shooting death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, who was killed Dec. 13.
An Orange County grand jury indicted him on murder charges in both cases.
King has not said what penalty he will seek in either case.
GOP state Rep. Scott Plakon has urged members of the Florida House to slash Ayala's budget because of her position on the death penalty.
(c)2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)